Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Here's to you, Robinson

'Robinson alone at Longchamps, staring at the wall.'
– Aspects of Robinson, Weldon Kees

The character Robinson appears in literature and film from time to time, a sometimes strange and mysterious figure; other times an everyman. Often it's not obvious if it's a first name or a surname: it's just Robinson. But is it the same Robinson all along?

He first appeared as Robinson Crusoe in 1719, said to be the first novel in English. Crusoe is shipwrecked and spends twenty-eight years on a remote desert island. Almost a hundred years later, Swiss Family Robinson (1812), about a family shipwrecked in the East Indies, was obviously based on the Defoe classic.

In the late 19th century, cult French symbolist poet and adventurer Arthur Rimbaud apparently coined the verb 'robinsonner', meaning 'to let the mind wander or to travel mentally', obviously taking its cue from Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.

The 20th century sees a more underground, sinister Robinson, sometimes a Zelig-like character, part Harry Lime from The Third Man, always ahead of the game.

Franz Kafka's unfinished novel Amerika (a country the writer never visited), published posthumously in 1927 (and not published in English until 1938), features a drifter and chancer called Robinson. There's an enigmatic Robinson in Celine's Journey to the End of the Night (1932). He appears again in Aspects of Robinson (1954), a collection of poems by Weldon Kees. Simon Armitage 'borrows' Robinson in his book of poems, Around Robinson, 1991. With BBC producer Daisy Goodwin, Armitage made an (appropriately) faux-documentary-cum-film-noir about Weldon Kees (who mysteriously disappeared in 1955), called Looking for Robinson (1993).

The novel Robinson by Chris Petit (first published 1993; reprinted 2001, appropriately out of print), who directed the fine British road movie, Radio On (1979), continues the quest for the elusive Robinson. Here, the narrator is sucked into the dark, seedy underbelly of porn film-making and, er, London's second hand bookshops. The mysterious Robinson is charming yet dangerous as the narrator becomes increasingly entangled in Robinson's violent activities. Patrick Hamilton meets JD Ballard is an obvious analogy but Petit has a cinematic style all his own.

Patrick Keiller's film London (1994) introduces the unseen Robinson examining 'the problem of London'. 'It is good to be born in depraved times', says Robinson. Keiller's later film, Robinson in Space (1997), has a mysterious advertising agency hiring an equally mysterious and still unseen Robinson, homosexual and potential spy, to look for 'the problem of England'. Influenced by Defoe's Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, the film takes us on a journey round England's industrial past, stopping off at little known literary landmarks including the pub where Defoe found his inspiration for Crusoe, Rimbaud's residence in Reading and Dracula's mansion in Carfax. By the end, the narrator informs us, Robinson has disappeared: 'I cannot tell you where Robinson finally found his Utopia.'

...I fell for a Robinson once (a woman, in case you're wondering). More a Ms Robinson than a Mrs Robinson ('We'd like to know a little bit about you for our files') but she still took me for a journey into the dark depths of my soul.

Keiller's latest film, Robinson in Ruins (2010) follows Robinson resume his investigations as he leaves prison. Vanessa Redgrave narrates this one (Philip Scofield died in 2008).


t. lief tepper said...

Splendid. Found my dark portal into the ubiquity of Robinson reading Journey To The End Of The Night where he is Bardimu's double... have long been convinced the doppelganger Marlowe can be similarly found haunting the provinces of literature dating back to his stabbing in a bar...

Barnaby said...

... and leading up to Marlow in Conrad's Hearts of Darkness (though minus the 'e') and Chandler's Phillip Marlowe: "Marlowe just grew out of the pulps. He was no one person." You may be onto something there.